STARTING DANNY KAYE
AT THE CNE
in a COLOSSAL STUPENDOUS in fact KONKAMUHGA PRODUCTION OF HIS OWN REAL-LIFE STORY.
With a Cast of Thousands including WINSTON CHURCHILL GEORGE BERNARD SHAW PRINCESS MARGARET MADAME TUSSAUD DARRYL ZANUCK MOSS HART MRS. SYLVIA KAYE SIR LAWRENCE AND LADY OLIVIER DANIEL KOMINSKI 150 INDIANS TWO FRIENDS FROM THE BORSCH CIRCUIT AND A MACLEAN’S CORRESPONDENT, JAMES DUGAN
THERE I was, sitting in Danny Kaye’s drawingroom in the St. Regis Hotel, high above Fifth Avenue, New York, waiting for Danny Kaye. Danny was coming back soon from an afternoon of making phonograph records to tell me from his own lips the amazing story of his rise to international fame and reveal the secrets of his act at this year’s Canadian National Exhibition.
I was nervous with anticipation, chain-smoking and doodling on my tablet with a bail-point pen. The ink came off on my hands and was transferred to my nose and ears. Danny Kaye had consented to give me an audience in spite of his busy schedule of recording, dickering with the Metropolitan Opera, seeing old friends] and nursing his wife’s cold.
I read my background notes on Kaye as I waited. Kaye, the Boy from Brooklyn, who became a worldfamous star in his first picture, “Up in Arms,” in 1944. Kaye, so beloved in Britain, for instance, that the U. S. Ambassador told a London testimonial dinner to Danny that the comedian was a better good-will ambassador than most diplomats. Kaye, who had received Winston Churchill in his dressing room, traded gags with George Bernard Shaw, and taught Princess Margaret to dance the cancan. Kaye, who is the most popular figure in Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, and, next to Charlie Chaplin, the world’s best-known comedian.
Danny Kaye walked in, looking like Danny Kaye in technicolor. He was tanned and lean after a five-week holiday in Europe. He wore grey pants and an odd jacket and had a crumpled white sailor cap pulled down over his eyes. He kissed his wife, Sylvia, and smiled winningly at me. “Hello,” he said. “That’s a konkamunga blue makeup you got on. What are you in aid of?”
We laughed and got down to business. I asked, “Will the crowd at the CNE be the biggest you’ve played to in person?”
“No,” he said. “I played to 120,000 in Soldier Field, Chicago. Overseas, during the war, I played to as many as 60,000 troops.”
I asked him to begin the story of his life. He looked at me silently so I said, consulting my notes, “Born Daniel Kominski, Brooklyn, 1913, son of poor garment worker, quit school at 17, became soda jerk. Amateur theatricals led to summer clowning jobs at Catskill mountain hotels . . .”
“Right,” said Danny.
I continued, “Tell me about your experiences in the Catskills, the so-called Borsch Circuit.”
Robert Merrill, popular Metropolitan Opera baritone, walked in. Danny leaped up and embraced him. “Bobby and I worked on the Borsch Circuit together,” he said. “Hey, Bobby, you been on the road?” The singer said, “Just closed in Buffalo. I did three Fausts, five Samson and Delilahs, three Carmens and three Traviatas.” Danny said, “That takes it out of you. Hey, I’m going to be in the Met with you this fall. Rudy Bing wants me to do the jailer bit in ‘Die Fledermaus.’ ” Rudolph Bing is the general director of the Metropolitan
“I heard,” Merrill said. “I told Rudy Bing to look out for Danny Kaye. I told him, ‘Danny Kaye will louse up the Metropolitan Opera.’ Rudy said, ‘What means that “louse up,” Bob?’ Rudy Continued on page 30
Continued from page 16
hasn’t been in this country long enough to catch the fast stuff we throw at him.”
Danny turned to me. “Where were we? The old life history. Oh, yeah. You see, I always wanted to be a doctor, but things got tough at home and I couldn’t go to medical school.” He paused. “You know, I’ve told my life history so often I am bored with myself.”
I said, “Let’s go on to ‘The Straw Hat Review,’ your first time on Broadway. The Shubert brothers brought your summer theatre gang to Broadway, and . . .”
“Get Sylvia in there,” he said. “I met her in a summer resort and she started writing special numbers for me. That made the difference. Sylvia’s got a fine head on my shoulders.”
One Eye Was Kinda Chinese
Kaye turned to Merrill. “I told Rudy Bing I’m crazy to do the role at the Met, especially on account of all the money he’s putting out. I get 40 bucks a performance.”
“Hotel expenses, too?” Merrill asked.
“We’re fighting on that,” said Danny.
Mrs. Kaye entered in a cerise robe and, sniffling with a cold, said, “I want to write a special number for Danny in ‘Die Fledermaus.’ ”
Danny said, “I had a picture painted of me in Paris. It’s crated up but I have a photo.” He passed it around. “One eye is kinda Chinese,” Danny explained. “I was leaning back, that’s why. A lot of artists started out to paint me and gave up. Second time I come to pose, they say, ‘This isn’t the way you looked last time. Your face has changed.’ They all give up. The artist that painted this one is coming over here this fall. Maybe she’ll add some more to it.”
I was still plugging away at my assignment to get Danny Kaye’s life story. I prompted him by referring to my background research. “Mrs. Kaye’s special numbers you sang in ‘The Straw Hat Revue’ got you a job at the Martinique night club on Broadway, where you appeared after the stage show. Then every producer in Broadway and Hollywood crowded into the Martinique with offers . . .”
“Uh huh,” said Danny, and turned to his pal, Robert Merrill. “Bobby, you ought to see Paris. When you come in from the airport and see the Place de la Concorde—what a sight! I’m going right back to Hollywood and learn French. Tell me, how do you learn an aria when it’s in French? Or do you speak it?”
“I can’t speak it,” said Merrill, “but I learn what all the words mean before I sing French.”
“Terribly frustrating, not knowing it,” said Danny. “A crowd would gather around us in the street in Paris. I’d say, ‘And-how-are-you-feeling-today - and - how’s - business?’ They’d shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Wee wee.’ They didn’t know whether I was bawling them out or what.”
I cleared my throat and said loudly, “The big producers discovered you at the Martinique, singing that song ‘Stanislavsky,’ that Mrs. Kaye wrote. Moss Hart put you in his musical play, ‘Lady in the Dark,’ with Gertrude Lawrence. . .”
“Mossie’s an old Borsch Circuit boy,” said Danny. “Funny thing about Paris when I was there in 1948. I had just come from my first date at the London Palladium. Couldn’t move in the streets of London for people. In Paris they had never seen me before. It was a strange feeling, walking around Paris. Wonderful to have such freedom.” He added quickly, “I’m not the least bit sure I’d have liked it if it had gone on that way.”
He went on, “I played in England in a place called Liverpool. The only thing you could do there was play golf. We would call up a golf course and say, ‘We want a nice quiet game. No publicity, please.’ They’d say, ‘Of course, Mr. Kaye. We understand, sir.’ Then we’d go to another course because everybody would be rushing to the first one. But, even at that, the people would gather. The word gets around like lightning. Now I know how the underground worked.”
Toomlers in the Catskills
I clutched Danny’s arm and said, “The way you sang that Tchaikovsky number in ‘Lady in the Dark,’ in which you rattled off the names of 50 tongue-twisting Russian composers in 40 seconds . . .”
A new friend entered. Danny embraced him. The newcomer held
Danny off at arm’s length and exclaimed, “English boy!” pinching Kaye’s tweed jacket.
Danny said, “I’ve known this character for 20 years. Phil Goldfarb.” Goldfarb said, “We used to be in show business together, the kid and me. Now I’m in the giftware business.” Danny said, “Up at White Roe Lake in the Catskills we used to be toom-
“Tumblers?” I asked.
“Nah, toomlers. From raising a tumult. We had to put on an act day and night to keep the customers from checking out of the hotel. Phil and I used to do a great toomle at lunch on rainy days. I’d burst out of the kitchen into the dining room, wearing a chef’s hat and screaming my lungs out. After me would come Phil, waving a cleaver. We’d spill a few tables to get the customers in good humor.”
Danny passed the photo of the painting to Goldfarb, who studied it for a moment and said, “The nose is good. What did you do in Paris? Did you ever find that sausage you wanted?”
“I looked four days before I found it.”
Merrill said, “How was the salami on the boat going over?”
“Bobby! You’re the one that sent me the salami. It was great. We ate it all the way over on the Queen Elizabeth.”
I fought my way through the salami and tried to get the conversation back to the life story. I reminded Danny, “Sam Goldwyn took you out of ‘Lady in the Dark’ and gave you the star part in your first film, ‘Up in Arms.’ That was the one where you sang ‘Melody in 4-F,’ ” Sylvia’s novelty tune about a conscript trying to avoid being drafted into the Army. After that came the hit movies ‘Wonder Man,’ ‘The Secret Life of Walter
Mitty’ and ‘The Kid from Brooklyn.’ ” “That reminds me,” said Danny, “when I was in Italy I saw ‘The Kid From Brooklyn’ in Italian. It was called ‘ Pref'erisco Vacca’ which means, T prefer the cow.’ You figure it out.” Mrs. Kaye said, “Danny, you were supposed to call Rudy Bing at the Met. He sails for Europe tonight.”
“Syl, see if you can get him on the phone.” Mrs. Kaye did so.
“Hello, Rudy,” said Danny. “Now, listen, Rudy. I want to give you some advice for European travelers. Don’t go losing your luggage before you get on the boat.”
Merrill said, “Rudy lived in Europe all his life.”
Danny continued, “Rudy, I’m crazy to do ‘Die Fledermaus,’ but the way you scheduled it I have only eight weeks to do my picture after I close in Toronto. If you can postpone it two weeks, I’ll say yes right now. The studio wants me to do the Met. Zanuck wants me to do it. Skouras wants me to do it. Okay, let me know by July.”
Gibberish In Swiss-German
Danny Kaye hung up and said, “I heard a wonderful Russian gypsy singer in one of those konkamunga joints in Paris. She had a great song. It went like this.” He hummed a melancholy lament and left the room.
Merrill said, “The boy has one of the best musical ears there is. Just great.” Danny returned with a pack of cigarettes. “You ever smoke French cigarettes?” His guests flinched and made distressed faces. “You know something,” said Danny, “I’m the guy that likes French cigarettes. I never knew how to order the kind I like in French. Everything I said the Frenchmen would back off and throw up their hands and say, ‘Formy-dabb!’ They
said I had a great French accent. Someday I’m going to learn the words.”
Goldfarb asked, “What did you do in England?”
“We spent a couple of week ends with the Oliviers,” said Danny, studying his neat black shoes. “They really fit, the English shoes. They feel like gloves. I was in Switzerland. Warners called me up from Hollywood and said my picture was opening in Zurich and asked me to go to the opening. I made a speech in German.” He waved his hands and invented a nonsense uproar that sounded like the tumbling of heavy locks. “That’s Swiss-German. No kidding, they understood me.”
I wearily tried again. “Danny! The life history! We’re up to where you finished your last picture, ‘A Song is Born,’ and you go to London and wow them at the Palladium . . .”
Phil Goldfarb said, “The kid was the biggest thing that happened there since the abdication. This fellow, Val Parnell, who manages the Palladium—”
“It was a howl,” said Danny. “The Parnells went to Paris with us this time. We started laughing on the plane and it was four days of solid yuks, listening to Val speak French.”
A new friend entered. “Louis!” Danny cried and hugged him. “Louis Eisen. We used to be a team in the Borsch Circuit,” he told me. Eisen said, “Now I’m a chiropractor.”
Danny told his old pals, “The konkamunga called up from Hollywood this morning. The older she gets the crazier she gets. I asked her what she wanted from New York and she said a puppy she can hold in her arms.”
I suspected he was talking about his four-year-old daughter, and asked, “What was that nickname you called your daughter?”
“That’s no nickname,” said Danny. “That’s her real name, Dena. D-EN-A.” I transferred some ink to my forehead as I smote it with my hand.
“Twentieth Century, my new studio, is making wonderful preparations for my new picture,” said Danny. “It’s called ‘On the Riviera’ and the entire film is going to be made in color right on the French Riviera. I have two French girls playing opposite me, Micheline Prelle and Cécile Aubry. I have a dual role—a 48-year-old French roué and an American entertainer in Paris. I am black-haired in the picture. They are saving me a lot of the time on make-up tests by taking pictures of me and painting in different mustaches and hairdo’s to see which is right.”
His Style Was Made In Japan
“Let’s get in some golf this week,” said Merrill.
“No, I gotta make records all week,” said Danny. “But I’ll be back this way in a couple of weeks. Gotta goto Washington. They have a celebrity golf tournament, the cabinet, senators and all. After that’s over we’ll get in some golf, Bobby. I haven’t had a club in my hands for eight weeks.” Danny noticed me waving my notebook and making unintelligible sounds. He smiled engagingly and said, “Got enough for the life history?”
“All but what you plan to do in your act at the Ex in Toronto. Have you ever played in Canada before?”
“In 1933 I was with the A. B. Marcus show and we played all the way across —Montreal, Saskatchewan, Victoria. Then we went to the Orient—”
Goldfarb said, “The Marcus show was a beat-up musical revue. That’s where the kid learned his pantomime and git-gat-gittle singing style, playing before people that didn’t understand English in China and Japan.”
I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Goldfarb,
but I want to ask Danny if . .
“Yeah, let the guy get his story,” said Danny. “I’ll tell you what; for the life of me, I don’t know what I’m going to do in Toronto. I’ll do some songs and some of Sylvia’s numbers, but I never work the same routine twice. I don’t ever know how long I’m going to be on or what’s going to happen. When I first played the Palladium—”
“He was a sensation!” said Goldfarb.
“—I worried whether 25 minutes would be too long for the first show,” said Danny. “I did 55 minutes the first
“They wouldn’t let him off,” said Goldfarb.
He Never Tells a Joke
Danny continued, “I try to go out and entertain and feel what my audience wants. A bunch of English reporters came backstage after the first week and asked me, ‘What is your secret? How do you hypnotize an audience?’ ”
“They sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ when the kid is through,” said Goldfarb.
“I told the reporters it was a question I couldn’t answer,” said Danny. “I don’t use any hypnotism. I try to go out and entertain. You know I played Dorchester Hotel in London in 1938 and I was a big failure. I didn’t use any hypnotism then, either. Careers and lives aren’t always in balance.” He gestured with his long hands to show how the scales teeter with lives and careers.
“That bit I did with the Dunhills, the dancers on the bill with me at the Palladium. I didn’t plan that. It just happened. One night I saw them standing in the wings watching me and I yelled, .‘Go ’way, you’re stealing my steps.’ Just a throwaway line. The crowd gave it a big laugh. I pulled the Dunhills out on stage and we ad-libbed an act together. If I want to sit down on the stage and smoke a cigarette, I do it. There’s nothing pre-arranged about it.
“I talk to the audience. I never told a joke in my life. There isn’t a gag in any of my shows. I try to stay out there and entertain and I go off when I feel they’ve had a good show.”
“They kept him on for 91 minutes the last time he was at the Paramount,” said Goldfarb.
Danny said, “So I can’t tell you what’ll happen in Toronto. The only thing I know is that they booked 150 Indians with me.”
“He’ll be elected Indian chief,” said Goldfarb. “In London he was in a car crash and bruised his ribs. When he went on that night the audience yelled, ‘How’s your ribs?’ So the kid called a stagehand to bring his X-rays. He held up the X-rays and ad-libbed a great doctor routine.”
“Does that answer you about Toronto?” asked Danny.
“Yes,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”
As I went out the door I saw two cheerful fellows entering Danny’s suite. I did not have to be told. Two old friends from the Borsch Circuit. ★
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